Council budgets for emergency planning have reduced by 29% since 2010, exclusive LGC research reveals.
In a year in which councils have had to contend with terrorist attacks in Manchester and London and the Grenfell Tower fire, local authorities have collectively set aside £17m less to deal with disasters and emergencies than they did in 2010-11.
This financial year was the first to buck a downward trend, although the 10% increase in emergency planning budgets on the previous year was largely driven by London boroughs.
Tony Thompson, chair of the Emergency Planning Society, told LGC he was “very concerned” about councils’ abilities to respond to emergencies and unexpected incidents.
“Around the country, some councils will be on a wing and a prayer and will be hoping [an emergency] doesn’t hit them,” he said.
Under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 councils have a number of statutory responsibilities including drawing up an emergency plan, setting up control centres during an incident, and leading the humanitarian effort by offering shelter and support to victims.
However, Mr Thompson said there was no inspection framework that tested councils’ ability to respond to an incident until they either undertook an exercise or an unexpected event happened.
“The only measure we have got is the money allocated,” he said.
In an LGC survey of 168 senior officers undertaken in September, 71% said they were confident in their emergency plan but only half were confident they had the necessary resources to effectively implement it.
Before the Civil Contingencies Act was introduced, grant funding for emergency planning from the Home Office was ringfenced. Councils are now able to set aside as little or as much as they like for emergency planning.
LGC analysed the amount councils tell the Department for Communities & Local Government they are budgeting for emergency planning.
In 2010, councils collectively set aside £58.7m for emergency planning. That dipped to a low of £37.9m last year, but rose to £41.7m this financial year.
|Region||Change in amount budgeted for emergency planning between 2010-11 and 2017-18|
|Yorkshire & Humber||-48%|
|East of England||-45%|
London is the only region to have increased the amount it is setting aside for emergency planning over the six-year period. Every other region has cut budgets, with the south-west (-51%) and Yorkshire and Humber (-48%) making the biggest reductions.
Mr Thompson said many councils “would be hard pushed to show they are complying with” their statutory duties.
In March 2016 Mr Thompson was the lead assessor for a large-scale emergency exercise in London.
“My assessment of [boroughs’] capability was not very impressive,” he said.
Recognising those “short-comings” might have caused London boroughs to invest more in emergency planning since then, he said, adding the society had seen “a noticeable surge” in the number of emergency planning officer roles being advertised generally since Grenfell.
However, LGC’s research found there were 19 councils in 2010-11 which set nothing aside for emergency planning. This year there were 32, 13 of which were top-tier councils.
Southwark LBC is among that group but chief executive Eleanor Kelly said the figures do not tell the whole story.
While Southwark employs three people whose main roles relate to emergency planning, Ms Kelly said the council had made it a responsibility of the whole workforce.
Ms Kelly, who oversaw the borough’s response to the London Bridge terror attack and was commended by communities secretary Sajid Javid for helping to lead the gold command response to the Grenfell Tower fire, said: “It’s down to leadership. If you’re saying to people this is really important and I want you to get involved and I want you to step up to the plate [if something happens] then people respond to that in a really positive way.”
Stephen Baker, spokesman for civil resilience and emergency planning for the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers, said training more staff was important as the nature of incidents has “moved on” from traditional threats such as flooding and they can now have a council-wide impact.
Mr Baker said: “One of my concerns is we have reduced staffing and addressed austerity and now our core capacity to manage a response over the longer term is being stretched. That’s why we have to review how we are using mutual aid between councils to make sure we are ready to respond [to an emergency].”